History Begins with Baked Clay (Cuneiform Tablets of Mesopotamia)

"Now all the earth had one language and words in common. And moving east, people found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other: 'Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly!' They used bricks instead of stone, and bitumen instead of mortar..."
-Genesis 11:1-3

The first written documents go back to slightly earlier than 3000 BCE. There was a considerable time lapse from when the first people thrived in East Africa 200,000 years ago. Writing, like agriculture and civilization, was a recent development. For 98% of human existence, we were not literate.

Who the first writers were is still up for debate, and there are some recent finds that puts the working dogma on hold. For decades, the winners have been the Sumerians, or the Sumerian city of Uruk to be exact. There are clay tablets with pictographs there that date back to about 3100 BCE. It had been believed that trade routes carried the idea of writing as far west as Egypt and as far east as the Indus valley in Pakistan. Only the Chinese and Mesoamericans have independently developed writing.

There have been a few recent discoveries that throw a loop in this model. In 1998, written material in Egypt had been uncovered and dated to 3300 BCE, beating the Sumerians by a few centuries. A year later, written material had been discovered in the Indus valley earlier than previously believed.

Writing defines history. Everything before writing is "pre-history", but there is no clear boundary between pre-history and history. Not everyone in the world started to read and write at the same time. Even in the parts of the world where history first developed, Mesopotamia and Egypt, for example, only a very small fraction of the population could read and write.

Many of the first written documents were rather, shall we say, mundane. Writing was probably invented for business transactions (to make trade and commerce more efficient) or other mundane purposes (label for the contents of beer vessels).

These rather boring documents do, however, yield insight on the daily activities and how people lived. One very common type of documents archaeologists often come across are what are appropriately called "king lists." It has always seemed useful, for some reason, to know who was king of such-and-such city, and it is from these documents we know a lot about rulers. These lists are very similar to the seemingly never-ending passages in the Bible that list who begot who and how many years they lived.

Another problem with the earliest writing was that is was originally not meant to transfer information, but rather gave a few elements to help a reader remember something he already know. So these first tablets essentially served the same function of bullet points on Power Point slides. It was not until much later that people wrote whole sentences in the order in which they were to be spoken, so writing could communicate new information to the reader.

Not to mention, we are missing an awfully lot of sources that had once existed. Greek historians and philosophers, for example, make references to sources that do not exist anymore. Medieval writers reference sources that longer exist. Babylonian writers reference earlier Akkadian sources. So in many situations, the primary sources are just not there. Much of what we know about Persians and Babylonians, for example, come from Greek writers, the Bible, and archaeology. We had known very little about the first people to write, the Sumerians, until archaeologist began uncovering ruins in the 19th century.

To be sure, societies were rather complex before any writing started. People were already living in cities, dividing labor, developing complex religious and philosophical notions, and engaging in extensive trade and mercantile activities. According the French-American archaeologist, Denise Schmandt-Basseret, a complex accounting system of clay tokens was widespread and used since the stone age, and this token system played a pivotal role in the development of writing.

Sumerians, Cuneiform, and Clay Tablets

The Sumerians were a group of people who lived in semi-autonomous city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates river valley in what is now the modern nation of Iraq. They invented a writing system known as cuneiform, the earliest writing system. Cuneiform is from the Latin cuneus, meaning "wedge" because of wedge-shaped marks they made by writing on clay tablets. The Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, where most of the Sumerian cities are located, had plenty of clay. Clay was used for pottery as well as building material, since wood and stone were hard to come by in the area. It eventually occurred to them, that baked clay would make a good writing material as well, so tablets the size of an iPhone were shaped, pointed marks were pressed on them with a stylist, and the tablets were then placed in an oven to make the markings permanent.


Some of the earliest known clay tablets come not from the heart of Sumeria, but from an outlining group of people.  A group of people closely related to the ancient Hebrews lived in the northeast corner of Mesopotamia, in what is now Syria. These people absorbed aspects of Sumerian culture, especially writing. Scribes kept records using Sumerian writing and studied Sumerian word lists.

A group of Italian archaeologist led by Paolo Matthiae in the the 1960s and 70s uncovered a site named Ebla. Ebla has yielded invaluable archaeological material, including palaces, temples, and strongly fortified city-wall, and subterranean tombs. One of the most interesting finds was a vast library containing a cache of some 8000 clay tablets. (Paolo Matthiae published a book, the Royal Archives of Ebla, that translates many of these tablets but it appears to be out-of-print and I have had little luck finding online sources.)

Sargon of Akkad and his daughter, Enheduanna

The Ebla people were conquered by the Akkadians in 2370 BCE. The Akkadians established their city, Akkade, in eastern Iraq, not far from modern-day Baghdad. The Akkadians conquered all the Sumerian city-states and areas around present-day southwestern Iran and northern Syria. They were one of the first conquering empires, having a capital, provinces, and a king.  Before then, city-states were the norm. Each city were autonomous political and commercial units. There were some groups of cities that formed a country ruled by king, like Egypt, but not many. The Akkadian empire was the first political unit to include numerous groups of people, cities, languages, and cultures. The Akkadian's first king, Sargon, became legendary as the first conqueror of history.

Sargon had a daughter, Enheduanna, whom Sargon appointed to be a royal priestess. She is the first author in history whose writings can be identified with a real person. She wrote in poetic verse, as was the norm, in which she tells of historical events that she experienced. It's a challenge to find her writings as well, but Betty De Shong Meador published the first collection of original translations of all forty-two hymns along with a lengthy examination of the relevant deity and city. I did come across this free website, "the En-hedu-Ana Research Pages" that provides some good excepts.

Code of Hammurabi

One popular item to put in writing were rules, so everyone can see for themselves and they could not be unfairly or arbitrarily twisted or modified. The first relatively complete law code we know of was established by Hammurabi, king of Babylon, who founded the Babylonian Empire, some centuries after the Akkadians came and went. Somewhere around 1770 BCE, Hammurabi had his law code inscribed on an 8-foot-high stone pillar of hard diorite.

The stele originally stood in the town of Sippar, some 30 miles upstream from Babylon, but an invading Elamite force plundered the city and carried away the stele as spoil. It remained in Elam’s capital, Susa, thereafter and was still there, in Susa’s ruins, in 1901, when a French archaeologist, Jacques Jean Marie de Morgan, found it and brought it back to Europe. Link here for an English translation of the Code of Hammurabi.


Other clay tablets were found in temples. In many ways, the temples were the academic heart of the ancient world. The earliest scribes were educated at 'schools' that were usually adjacent to the temples, and they were typically employed (or at least worked closely with) the temple priesthood. The priesthood was appointed by the king, and were often related, like Sargon and Enheduanna. There was no separation of church and state, or religion and academics for that matter, back then. Temples often had their own archives. There were clay tablets at some of big cities you would expect to find them: Babylon and Ur. One of the most valuable finds, however, was at the city of Nippur, a big and important city but rather unoffensive throughout it's history and never a capital.

One explanation for why this city yields so much information is because it was more or less abandoned after the river shifted away from it sometime in the 12th century BCE. It was later rebuilt but during the period of abandonment, the artifacts were left in the places where they were used and buried in sand and sediment. Places that suffer catastrophic or quick deaths often yield more information then cities that die slowly or don't die at all.

Archaeologist first starting exploring this city in the 1800s, but shortly after World War II, University of Chicago archaeologist began uncovering more than 40,000 clay tablets, but it was not so much because of the share number of tablets recovered, but the type of documents they were. Like I mentioned, most information is rather mundane record keeping, but the cache of Nippur tablets contain a large proportion of literature. One of the most valuable find here was the earliest accounts of the Sumerian creation myth.


Many people probably think of Egyptian hieroglyphs when they think of the earliest writing systems. Egyptian hieroglyphs was the second fully developed writing system, after Sumerian Cuneiform. The Egyptians are covered in the next session


One of those places where it's always been believed that writing developed independently of Sumeria is China. Some of the earliest known writing from China was on animal bones which are called "oracle bones" because priest (or shaman) used them to tell the future. Other writing material in early China include thin slips of bamboo or wood connected by thongs and used like paged books or scrolls. Recovered from tombs, the oldest of these dates back to third or fourth century B.C. They were used for official documents, private letters, calendars, laws and statutes, prescriptions, literary texts, and miscellaneous records. For more details about early Chinese writing, see this lesson.

Primary Sources Online

Learning Resources

Ancient Scripts - Want to know how to read Cuneiform? This resources provides a good historical background and is good starting point

You Can Write Cuneiform Script - a series of YouTube videos that provide instruction on writing Cuneiform script

Further Reading

Betty De Shong Meador. 2010. Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna (Classics and the Ancient World) Austin, TX : University of Texas Press

Tor Eigeland. 1978. "Elba: City of White Stone". Saudi Aramco World. March/April

Denise Schmandt-Besserat. 1996. How Writing Came About. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Denise Schmandt-Besserate. 2007. When Writing Met Art: from Symbol to Story. Austin, TX : University of Texas Press.
Denise Schmandt-Besserate is a professor emeritus at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies within the University of Texas. In this book, she traces the development of writing for uses other then accounting through motifs and designs on funerary and votive art objects. Her ground breaking research on how an accounting system of clay tokens led to the development of writing is presented in a previous book How Writing Came About (listed above).
For more information about Professor Schmandt-Bessearate's theory on clay tokens developing into writing see the lesson on Cows and Coins: Money in the Ancient World.